Southern Miss top UL Lafayette 28-21 in New Orleans Bowl
NEW ORLEANS -- Receiver Allenzae Staggers set records for receptions and receiving yards Saturday night as Southern Miss outlasted the Louisiana-Lafayette 28-21 in the 16th annual R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Staggers, who was named Southern Miss' Most Valuable Player, caught a career-high 11 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown before the fourth-largest crowd (35,601) in the bowl's history.
"It's just a blessing," Staggers said. "We executed, just executed plays."
The victory gave Southern Miss (7-6) consecutive winning seasons.
Staggers, in his first season with the program after transferring from East Mississippi Community College, became the only Golden Eagle to ever log two, 200-yard receiving games.
Staggers had a six-catch, school-record, 292-yard effort against Rice University on Oct. 1.
Running back Ito Smith rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against the Ragin' Cajuns, and caught a pass for a third, as the Golden Eagles won in the postseason for the first time since 2011.
"We just feel blessed, very fortunate, very grateful," Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. "These guys fought through so much during the season, so I'm just very proud of them."
Smith, who passed Harold Shaw for second on the list for rushing touchdowns in a season (17), helped the Golden Eagles grind on the Ragin' Cajuns (6-7) in the second half.
Smith gained 105 yards and scored on a 1-yard run on 19 carries over the final two quarters as the Golden Eagles scored on a pair of lengthy, drives that ground off a third of the second half clock.
"At halftime, my whole deal was, `How about some methodical drives," Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "They were killing us on time of possession, but we came out and had two, (10-plus)-play drives that I thought won the day for us.
"We ran the ball well in the second half, but part of that was me, too. (In the first half) I wasn't calling it."
Louisiana-Lafayette, which had won three of its final four games to become bowl eligible, lost for the ninth consecutive time to the Golden Eagles, a former long-time rival, though the two had not met since 2008.
"It hurts, but at least we had one more game to play," UL-Lafayette linebacker Otha Peters said.
The Cajuns struggled to find any offensive consistency against the Golden Eagles. Two of UL-Lafayette's three touchdowns came on drives of 29 yards and 19 yards after USM turnovers.
All told, Louisiana-Lafayette managed just 252 total yards, including 95 yards passing.
"Their pressure (Saturday night), it got to us," said UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth after watching Southern Miss collect six sacks among nine tackles for loss, including a bowl-record three sacks by defensive end Ja'Boree Poole.
"We just didn't have the answers late in the game."
The Cajuns came up short at the beginning of the game as well, as senior quarterback Nick Mullens and Staggers hooked up on long passes to set up Southern Miss' first two scores.
The two combined on a 55-yard pass down to the Ragin' Cajuns' 12-yard line on the Golden Eagles' first offensive snap. The strike set up Smith's bronco-ride-of-an-11-yard run for a 7-0 Southern Miss lead with 9:39 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a three-and-out, Mullens hit Staggers with a quick slant that turned into a 66-yard gain down to UL-Lafayette's 9-yard line. Two plays later, Mullens found Smith on a 6-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead with 7:17 left in the quarter.
"Nick was really, really good early on," Dawson said.
UL-Lafayette responded with a nine-play, 66-yard drive, capped by quarterback Anthony Jennings' 4- yard run with 3:15 left in the first period, to pull within 14-7, and momentum continued to shift UL-Lafayette's way through the first half of the second quarter.
Parker Shaunfield, in his first action since being sidelined in late October with a pulled thigh muscle, missed a 38-yard field, and on Southern Miss' next possession, Mullens was sacked and stripped of the ball by UL-Lafayette linebacker Tre'maine Lightfoot.
Peters recovered and returned the ball 15 yards to USM's 29-yard line. Two plays later, backup quarterback Dion Ray took a direct snap and weaved his way 12 yards to tie the game 14-14 with 7:28 left in the second quarter.
The Golden Eagles drove 75 yards in 11 plays to take a 21-14 lead in the third quarter with Mullens finding Staggers in the back of the end zone off play-action.
Mullens completed 25 of 40 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in his final game in a Golden Eagle uniform.
Smith's 1-yard run capped a 14-play, 83-yard drive that straddled the third and fourth quarters and put Southern Miss up by two scores with 12:26 to play in the game.
But Travis Crawford's 53-yard interception return set up the Cajuns at Southern Miss' 19-yard line and Jennings scored his second touchdown on a 3-yard run as UL-Lafayette pulled within 28-21 with 5:10 to play.
The Cajuns got the ball back at their 18-yard line with 2:02 to play. But after a pair of first downs brought them to midfield, a sack by defensive linemen Dylan Bradley and Xavier Thigpen led to incompletions on third and fourth downs as the Golden Eagles' locked down the victory.
"Southern Miss is back," said Bradley, who finished with four tackles, including 1 ½ sacks, in his final game as a Golden Eagle. "That's what I signed up for, to bring Southern Miss (football) back, and contend for a championship and bowl wins every year.